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Symbol Analysis

Those tulips are red; that much we know. But what's up with that exactly? Why not have white tulips or blue tulips or yellow tulips? Part of the answer might lie in the fact that in this poem, red is just about as far away from white as you can get. It's the color that fights and struggles with whiteness, that disrupts and dirties it. It's the color of threat and anger, the color of the awful tulips that the speaker hates so much. It's the color of wounds and pain. Yet it's also the color of real health, of the beautiful blossoming of blood in the speaker's heart. So what exactly are we supposed to make of that?

  • Line 36: Our speaker hates these tulips. She's particularly annoyed by their redness, which is the kind of thing you might say about a bright color, that it hurts your eyes. Still, we get the feeling that this goes a lot deeper, that the speaker feels somehow violated or terrified by the color red.
  • Line 39: When you give an idea like redness the ability to do human things like carry on a conversation, we call that personification, and in this case, it makes those flowers quite creepy, as if they have a mind of their own.
  • Line 42: In this particular metaphor, the speaker imagines that the tulips have turned into weights that pull her down under the water. Again, the redness of the weights conveys danger and threat. Plus, check out the rhyming sound there: "red lead." When the rhyme in a poem comes within a line rather than at the end, we call that internal rhyme.
  • Line 54: This image of a rusty engine stuck in the middle of the water is the tail end of a beautiful simile that compares this image to the way air flows around the tulips. One of the links that ties the two images together is our old friend, the color red. The red engine and the red tulips mirror each other in the way the air and water move around them. And as a bonus, Plath throws in a nice little bit of alliteration there, too, with the phrase "rust-red."
  • Line 61: We think this might be the most beautiful and surprising image in the poem, and the color red has a lot to do with that. Up until now, redness has been a symbol of pain, danger, fear – basically your average nightmare. But suddenly, things shift, and the speaker's compares her heart to a bowl of red blossoms. With that metaphor, she imagines a healthy, beautiful bunch of red flowers in her chest. They are the imaginary opposite of the awful tulips, as full of comfort and hope as the tulips are full of pain.

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